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The Evolution of Carousels

As early as 1100’s there was a sport played on horseback by Turkish and Arabian horsemen. Their seriousness at playing the game made Spanish crusaders describe the combat as Carosella and their Italian counterpart, Garosello, which both means a “Little battle” in English.

As the European crusaders returned home, they introduced the game and over time the game grew to become an avenue for the Europeans to show off their excellent skills and horsemanship, which earned it its French name “Carrousel.”

A key feature of the game was the ring-spearing contest, where a player would, with a lance held, ride on a horse with full tilt, towards a ring, hung with gorgeous ribbons on the limb of a tree or a pole. The lance was used to spear the ring.

Over 300 years back, an idea was conceived by a Frenchman, to create a means of teaching young noblemen the art of ring-spearing. He thought of creating wood-carved chariots and horses hanging from a center pole by use of chains. This gave birth to the present day carousel.

As at the late 1700’s, the Europeans had fallen in love with this sport which they played solely for pleasure. They came in small and light sizes limits, for easy movement by horsepower, mule or man. Over the years, the invention of steam engines removed the size and weight limitations.

The application of steam power to carousels gave birth to the massive machine.
The modern day carousel was pioneered in America by Gustav Dentzel in the 1860’s. His course became a source of motivation to some skillful men who made related arts and their pieces soon became masterpieces in amusement parks spread across the central cities and recreational parks all over the United States.

Of all the old carousels made by the Europeans, none could match the works of these American craftsmen. These men built a whole new reputation for themselves with their innovation: they built more massive and well-housed carousels. They built their horses and chariots with rich and in divers beautiful designs and sizes. They made parade horses, war horses, Indian ponies and horses that reflected a child’s fantasy. They also created animals of the farm, forest, jungle, and plains, as well as cats, dogs, mythical beasts and teddy bears. Practically all animals with a rideable build were designed on the American carousels.

The American Carousel flourished until the great depression which hit the United States between 1929 and 1939. The economic downturn affected the amusement parks, causing a dramatic drop in the purchase of new Carousels; used ones became preferable. Most manufacturers wound up, while other moved to other markets. A lot of carousels were left inactive which eventually led to their destruction.

Carousels producers became more innovative as the American economy developed. The labor and time intensive carvings were done away with. Carousel animals were now produced with cast aluminum and further improved with the use of fiberglass. Advancement in technology gave room for well-designed and larger amusement rides. Carousels which were hitherto seen as a centerpiece soon became a “Kids Ride.”

The dwindled interest in carousels animals was renewed in the 1970’s. The beauty of the woodcarving made it fit for decorations and so, prices of surviving carousel animals skyrocketed from a few hundred dollars to thousands of dollars within a decade. Sellers of Antiques bought a lot of carousels and dismantled them for sale and made massive profits. This trend is still practiced today.

During the golden age of American carousels, over 4,000 units were produced, but of that large number, you could barely find 150 functioning carousels today. However, the IMCA is putting in efforts to sustain the existence of carousels. Such efforts include overhauling of abandoned carousels and placing them in public places for full operation.